Court Clarifies the Test to Determine Appropriate Standard of Care in Medical Malpractice Cases
HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Gadsden v. Honts
On August 12, 2013, Regina Honts filed a wrongful-death medical malpractice action against HealthSouth Gadsden concerning its treatment of Doris Green, Regina Hont’s mother. The complaint alleged that HealthSouth Gadsden’s negligence in the treatment of Green caused her death. The complaint also alleged that HealthSouth Gadsden breached the nursing standard of care by administering Green an unprescribed opiate, which allegedly resulted in Green’s unresponsive state and eventual stroke a few months after her discharge from HealthSouth Gadsden.
During the trial, Honts introduced expert testimony and evidence only regarding the nursing standard of care. However, Honts requested jury charges on the standard of care applicable to hospitals. Over HealthSouth Gadsden’s objection that Honts’ complaint and the testimony at trial demonstrated that a nurse’s conduct was being challenged as a breach of the standard of care, the trial court charged the jury on the standard of care applicable to hospitals. On these instructions, the jury awarded Honts $20,000,000 in punitive damages on her wrongful-death medical malpractice claim regarding Green’s death. HealthSouth Gadsden filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court denied, arguing that the trial court charged the jury on the incorrect standard of care and that it was “entitled to instructions that [a]re germane to the legal theories for which there is substantial evidence.”
On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court noted the fact that although the expert testimony that Hont introduced was sufficient to support how the nurses’ conduct at HealthSouth Gadsden deviated from the nursing standard of care, the testimony failed to show how HealthSouth Gadsden’s conduct deviated from the hospital standard of care. Honts argued that the trial court properly instructed the jury on the standard of care applicable in the case given that HealthSouth Gadsden was the only defendant. Ultimately, the Alabama Supreme Court agreed with HealthSouth Gadsden’s argument that the focus of the standard of care instruction in a medical malpractice case “should be on the individual practitioner whose specific action allegedly fell below the required standard of care.” Since the only testimony introduced in the trial court regarding the applicable standard of care concerned the nursing standard of care, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded for a new trial.